Though the focus of the Houston Dynamo and Los Angeles Galaxy will be on winning the most important match of the season, there are a host of other storylines behind the scenes that will impact Saturday's MLS Cup.
As December rolls around, most teams are already prepping for 2013 -- making roster moves, scouting college and international players and discussing offseason signings and draft strategy. Every MLS team has already conducted individual player meetings, notifying them whether contract options will be picked up, renegotiated or simply waived.
That is, every team, except for the Galaxy and Dynamo. There are players on both rosters whose futures with each club are uncertain. Although I'm sure these players will be focused on the task at hand, it's also extremely unnerving to be forced to wait until the final hour to learn your fate. By Wednesday, all clubs must notify the league which players' contract options they plan on exercising and which players will be made available for the re-entry draft.
Depending on who those players are for Houston and L.A., and their influence in the locker room, it can serve as added motivation for a team to win for a departing teammate or deflate a team that begins to question management. Regardless, these final days of preparation serve as a reminder that things will never quite be the same as during this magnificent season.
Last week, David Beckham announced he would not be returning to MLS next season. For Galaxy players, I expect it to have much of the same effect as D.C. United and U.S. National Team veteran Earnie Stewart's announcement had on me the night before MLS Cup 2004. I couldn't help but be reminded of that moment, when one of the players I looked up to the most throughout my career stood up at dinner and announced that the next day's game would be his last as a professional.
He told us all to take a long look around the room at the faces that were surrounding us because it would be the last time this particular team would ever be together. As a 22-year-old who very much viewed my team as my extended family, what Stewart said suddenly hit home. This extended family dinner would never be replicated. This would be the last time I would play the game I loved with this group of players and staff. In Beckham's case, as a former teammate, I know he is as well respected in that locker room as any MLS player ever. Throughout the ups and downs, he carried himself with a level of professionalism, competitiveness and charisma that only he could pull off. There is no question Beckham's Galaxy teammates will be looking to give him a proper sendoff for all he contributed the last six years.
But Houston won't have a lack of motivation. Aside from aiming to avenge last year's MLS Cup loss to the Galaxy, it, too, has key players to rally around. It's unclear whether Dynamo stalwart Brian Ching, 34, will be back next season. He's certainly in the latter stages of his career -- his role changing drastically from go-to scorer to late-game substitute -- after being the face of the franchise since its debut season in 2006. Houston will look to get Ching another ring just in case this is his last opportunity. Brad Davis and Ricardo Clark will both be itching to make an impact after being sidelined in previous MLS Cups. Davis sat out last year's 1-0 loss to the Galaxy with a torn quad. Clark has never played in an MLS Cup despite the Dynamo's success. He was injured in 2006 and suspended in 2007.
The onus is also on coaches Bruce Arena and Dom Kinnear to keep their players from distractions. During both my MLS Cups (2004 with D.C. United and 2009 with the Galaxy), there was always a bit of unexpected news that would raise eyebrows and invoke tension. Everything from the inevitable chatter of teammates hearing from their agent they might be waived, traded or simply not be back the following season, to ticket and flight demands from family members, in-laws and even ex-girlfriends who seem to come out of the woodwork.
But these clubs have been here before. If any coaches have mastered what it takes to get their teams prepared to play in a MLS Cup final, it is Arena and Kinnear. With all the side plots, I expect this to be an MLS Cup for the ages.